I wanted to see some sea lions in Argentina.
“¡Hola Señor! “ I said as I approached the first taxi I found near the centre of Puerto Madryn, “¿cómo está usted?”
The chubby man grinned at me and nodded enthusiastically, and we went about the business of negotiating a taxi ride to see the local wildlife. Return trip with half an hour with the sea lions. He was a dark and scruffy-looking man, dressed in a dirty overall, with curly hair and very untidy facial hair which had not been shampooed for several days. His vehicle was in similar condition, but there was no alternative around, so I had to go for it. The negotiation that followed was conducted in a mixture of his bad English and my atrocious, almost non-existent Spanish. I produced a glossy tourist brochure and pointed at a picture of some sea lions, which the taxi driver understood instantly, since it’s the only thing that anyone ever wants to see when in Puerto Madryn.
“Dos Cientos y cincuenta Pesos,” was his opening bid. This wasn’t my first rodeo, so I started haggling by using the only tactic that I know. I tried to baffle him into submission.
“Señor, such a pecuniary transaction would considerably diminish the already meagre budgetary allotment for today’s expenditure for culture, nature and frivolity,” I said to the driver, watching intently as his facial features slowly rearranged themselves to produce a completely bewildered expression which had made the whole utterance worthwhile.
“¿Qué?” he said quietly.
“El cheapo, por favor,” I added in my best John Cleese voice which he didn’t understand either. “¿Usted aceptaría cien?,” which he did.
The taxi driver grudgingly accepted my offer of one hundred Pesos, about twenty Euros, after a short pause to indicate that he wasn’t at all happy about it as he could in all probability manage to over-charge other tourists for much more for the same trip that day, but wouldn’t.
OK, so I hadn’t managed to dazzle anyone with my haggling skills, or my Spanish for that matter, but at least it had worked. We got into the taxi and were soon thundering down a bumpy dirt road which took us to the sea lion reserve, about twelve kilometres out of town. The car shuddered and vibrated furiously as we drove through thick dust clouds that had been thrown up ahead by several busloads of tourists already on their way. There was a short queue of vehicles at the gate of the nature reserve, and as the ranger on duty went about collecting an entrance fee from each visitor, the curly-haired Argentinean taxi driver did his very best to try and rip me off.
“Fifty doollars! I want fifty doollars”, he suddenly said in near-perfect English, and then he added that if I didn’t pay, he would leave me behind in the middle of nowhere. A short argument ensued in which I insisted several times that the original deal was for a hundred Pesos and that, in any case, I didn’t have any US currency on me, which of course I did, but he wasn’t to know that.
I shrugged my shoulders to indicate that a hundred Pesos was all I had, but the driver continued his attempt to get more cash out of me. When met with subsequent silence from me as I sat fuming in the back of his taxi, he eventually gave up and drove me the rest of the way to the sea lions. I had no cause for alarm at being abandoned in the middle of nowhere, however, since there were plenty of buses and other taxis waiting at the entrance of the reserve, but I was also aware the situation could easily have been different.
The high, wooden lookout was positioned on a grassy rocky overhang from which it was possible to see the entire cove that stretched out in the distance. There were dozens of blubbery, shiny sea lions, lounging on the dark grey pebble beach directly below the cove’s protective sheer cliff face. I had seen sea lions in a zoo before, of course, but never in their natural habitat. Most of them were basking in the sunlight and some snoozed lightly in huddles of five or six, a few metres from the beachfront. Most were female. The few males on the beach circled around each other, clashed their big, fat bellies together, and got about the business of beating the shit out of each other to prove to the females how sexy they were. Typical male behaviour, really.
I’d watched enough BBC documentaries to suppose that the biggest of the sea lions, and thus presumably the most mature of the lot, was trying to protect his extensive harem, while the younger males attempted to challenge the king’s authority and snare a few of the more submissive females for themselves.
Another bout of sea lion wrestling erupted, much to the entertainment of all the tourists perched on the lookout, accompanied by a cacophony of bellowing grunts from the participating males. The females, on the other hand, continue to roll around in the sun wondering what all the fuss was all about. They looked much like sunbathers on the deck of a cruise ship do after a long fighting session at the lunch buffet. The sea lion fight ended with the younger male retreating to the water with a splash and swimming an underwater stretch through the clear water along the cove before resurfacing near another huddle of females to try his luck anew. Small sea lion pups also splashed about in the water and were brought back to the huddle by one of the elders whenever they strayed too far from the group. I marvelled at nature’s display and thought what a lovely planet it is that we live on.
Except for the taxi drivers, of course.
I had to deal with my idiot driver all the way back. Although, the return trip to Puerto Madryn was uneventful, I had a nasty suspicion the taxi driver would again try to extort me once we got there. No sooner had we arrived at the port when my suspicions were confirmed.
“Give me one hundred Pesos,” he said in flawless English, and then he added, “each way.”
“Nice try.” I said to the man, trying to thrust a hundred Peso note into his hand. He wouldn’t take it, so I let the banknote drop to ground in front of him and walked away without bothering to listen to his protests.
Easy. Sea Lions: 1, Taxi Driver: 0